Roundtable: What HKP’s Noonas really think about K-pop
It’s no secret, I’m not a teen anymore. Having stepped into the 30’s camp, this is a period of a woman’s life when one usually thinks about settling down finally, getting married, having kids and gardening chili plants on the balcony. And what am I doing?
11:33 pm, Noona* is watching a DBSK concert video. Tomorrow is a cruel work day and Noona has to get up at 7 a.m.
As I am watching my favourite boys dance, I cannot help but feel some kind of awkward remorse. Is this what a grown woman is supposed to be doing? I thought I would ask my fellow “noona fan” coworkers at HelloKpop, Nini and CeeFu, what they think about boy bands and noona fans. So, we gathered around the virtual roundtable and had a girly–but very enlightening–chat about K-pop.
They are artists or groups to me. I actually feel like I’m insulting them if I label them a boy band. – Nini
Xiaolong: First of all, let’s share our K-pop journeys with our readers. How did it all begin?
Nini: While returning home from a trip to Charlotte, I took a wrong turn and got lost. Almost out of gas, I was frantic to find a gas station. On this road in the middle of nowhere, I came across a small Mom and Pop store. Thankful to find gas, I went inside to get a drink and pay. As I was walking down the aisle towards the coolers, I heard music playing from a little boombox behind the counter. The music was foreign, I had never heard the language before, but it sounded awesome. I stood there in the middle of the aisle for three minutes listening to the song–not understanding the lyrics–but feeling the music and the vocals. It made me smile. When the song stopped, I grabbed my drink and headed to the counter to pay. Behind the counter stood an elderly Korean grandmother. With a sweet smile, she asked me in broken English if there was anything else I needed.
I looked at her, and before I even thought to ask for directions to get back to the highway, I said, “Excuse me but could you tell me the name of that song that just played a moment ago?” She said, ” Oh, did you like it?” I said, “Yes, it was very beautiful, but I didn’t understand it. Who sings it?” She said, “Oh, that was Day By Day by Fly to the Sky.”
She told me it was Korean pop music, and I proceeded to have a two-hour conversation with her about it. Grandma Kim changed my life, and thanks to that random encounter, I have found something that has continually made me happy. I will be forever grateful for that night. The night I found Brian Joo and Hwanhee. That night gave me not only my passion in life, but set me on my path. That’s also why Brian Joo is still my ultimate bias… Thirteen years as a K-pop and Brian fan. This happened on January 21, 2000.
“Brian Joo is still my ultimate bias… 13 years as a K-pop and Brian fan” – Nini
Xiaolong: Back then I’m sure there were not many English websites on K-pop, how did you start out?
Nini: I got into the Korean community in Charlotte in a big way. I made lots of friends there, so I could learn about the culture and music. I would troll the Internet (back in the day of super slow DSL), trying to find anything and everything I could find about K-pop. Music online was really hard to come by and finding albums was even more difficult.
Xiaolong: How about you, CeeFu?
CeeFu: I’m not nearly the veteran as Nini, but what I lack in time I make up for in effort. I had been watching Chinese wuxia television shows for years, and I ran out. Netflix kept “recommending” that I watch this K-drama, so I watched My Lovely Samsoon, and was hooked on the K-drama. I then started watching Boys Over Flowers, and a colleague of mine told me that her sister-in-law also watched K-dramas. She loved Boys over Flowers, and she said, “You know he (Kim Hyun Joong) is [in] a band, right?” Of course, I went straight to the Internet and looked up everything SS501 related. I found other groups, like Super Junior (even my mom likes them), SHINee, etc. Then, I took it back to the old school and downloaded Seo Taiji‘s entire catalog! Ever since then, I’ve been roaming around all of K-pop!
Nini: I was the same way, I totally backtracked K-pop after I got into the genre.
Xiaolong: I’m pretty new to K-pop and Asia, I sort of transitioned from Turkish culture by accidentally discovering a Jay Chou song at the end of a Jet Li movie, and I became a fansubber because I wanted to spread C-pop a bit. Someone posted Bigbang‘s Secret Garden parody on our fansub team’s SNS page and bang! 🙂 I had no clue what the story was all about, but they were so hilarious. I started to look up videos on YouTube and there you go…
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Bigbang Secret Garden parody
Do you listen to boy bands mostly, or anyone and everyone?
Nini: (glances are her playlist: Nini is having a DBSK kinda day.) Actually, I listen to a wide variety of K-pop/K-hiphop/K-rock groups, but I do have an affinity to “boy bands,” even though I don’t think of them as boy bands.
CeeFu: I listen to everybody, but I “specialize” in the male groups! 😀
Xiaolong: Technically, they are boy bands, right? And I don’t know how it is in the USA, but in Europe, boy bands sort of went out of fashion. Often I get embarrassed to tell people that I listen to boy bands. I get weird looks. Have you ever had this feeling? Of embarrassment?
Nini: To me, there is a fundamental difference between my definition of “boy band” and the normal definition of the word. I don’t see them as boy bands. I see them as groups or artists. Once I crossed over that line of being a fan to being part of the industry, my definition of the word changed. In a way, I actually consider it a derogatory term now.
CeeFu: I think that now “boy band” has a somewhat negative connotation (thanks, NKOTB), but people forget that, at least in America, male groups have a long history. I think of them as male groups (they can’t stay “boys” forever)! So, I try not to call them “boy bands” or “boy groups”. Hello, Shinhwa…they’re MEN!
Nini: Exactly CeeFu, I totally agree 100%. They are artists or groups to me. I actually feel like I’m insulting them if I label them a boy band.
Shinhwa: the longest running male group in K-pop history
Xiaolong: That’s absolutely cool! And a good tip for me what to say next time someone asks, “And you are listening to boy bands?!”
How are K-pop male groups different from traditional Western boy bands? Are they different at all?
CeeFu: First of all, they are Korean. I think we need to say this. I mean, I know it’s obvious, but being in the United States, it matters that these guys are Korean and making music, given the lack of representations of Asian men we get here. A lot of times, people compare them to ’90’s male groups, but I think they are different. American male groups sang songs, maybe did some choreography. Korean male groups do a lot more: they have television appearances, hosting and MC gigs, photo shoots, concerts. That training that they go through prepares them for a variety of activities. Also, they are involved in ever-changing concepts, and so they keep fans interested, instead of giving them the same old thing. They also maintain a relationship with the fans on social media and in other places. Because the members have different activities, it makes them different from Western “boy bands.”
Nini: Agreed. There are several fundamental differences, culture being the most prevalent. In comparison to U.S.-based pop male groups from the height of the “Boy Band Era,” the influence of traditional Korean culture permeates through their every word and action. They are polite, respectful, and (usually) perpetuate a “moral high ground” that Western artists have really lost over time. Their music styles, while influenced by a worldwide perspective, still are fundamentally based in the aspects of traditional beliefs and practices. K-pop groups work extremely hard to perfect their craft, and its this traditional idealism that filters into their work ethic.
I really think one of K-pop’s biggest appeal is that the artists true desire to interact with their fans. That is rarely seen with U.S. artists. U.S. promoters are still shocked when a K-pop artist wants to hold a “Fan Meeting,” because that’s never really done in the U.S. market or by U.S. artists.
Xiaolong: Very well said, girls, and I fully agree. So, we like them for their craft, for the music, for the visuals, the whole package. But they are usually still teenage boys when they debut. Some may be as young as fifteen, and we are all over thirty.
CeeFu: Yes, some of them are young, but that doesn’t bother me, because I’m not trying to DATE them! They are entertainers and there have always been young entertainers–so.
Xiaolong: Never had any fan-girling moments? You know, drooling over muscles, abs, looks in general and wishing they were a bit older?
CeeFu: Oh, I do my share of fan-girling, but I think there are different kinds of fan-girling. Do I have a picture of Kangta on my phone right now? Yes. Is he dressed? Yes, he is! I think most noonas may do fan-girling in a different kind of way. Other noonas…yes, they may or may not be collecting ab-tastic photos.
Nini: Admittedly, I do have my moments, but they are not as extensive as many other fans. For me, in the beginning of my “K-pop life,” their ages didn’t really bother me. I was in my early twenties and of the age range typical for a K-pop fan. When I turned twenty-eight, I had a three-year stent where I felt a little odd, because I was liking and (at times) fan-girling over guys who were much younger than me. Now, I’m very proud to say that I’m a fan of groups like Boyfriend, whose youngest member Minwoo was born the year I graduated high school (1995).
Nini: I think every Noona fan goes through a period of time feeling somewhat ashamed of liking guys that are ten-plus years younger than them. While I like members that happened to be younger than me, I second CeeFu’s statement. Just because I like them, enjoy their music, and think they are extremely good looking, doesn’t mean that I want to date them. The whole point of the idol lifestyle (for a male artist) is to appeal to a wide variety and wide age range of female fans. In my opinion, if a fifteen-year-old K-pop artist can win the heart of a thirty-plus-year-old woman, then he’s doing his job right.
Xiaolong: I am absolutely in this period. It totally turned my male ideal upside down. I never liked guys younger than me. And I have to add, before someone misunderstands, it’s not about the looks only.
Did this noona fan experience change the way you look at men?
Nini: No. I’ve always had an affinity for Asian men, even before I got into Asian music. They are attractive, not simply because of looks or talent, but more so because of their personalities and belief systems.
CeeFu: Nope. My affinity for Asian culture is lifelong, and so is my interest in the representations of masculinity. So, getting into K-pop hasn’t changed the way I look at men.
Nini: I agree with CeeFu. I’ve never believed in the stereotypes that are perpetuated about Asians, men or otherwise. I’ve had a fascination with Asian cultures ever since I was young. My grandfather and father were both stationed in Asia during their military careers, and my grandfather used to tell me stories about his time in Asia. Unlike the typical “war stories” a person of that experience might tell, he always told uplifting and interesting stories about the people and cultures of Asia. That fed my innate thirst for knowledge when I was a kid, and I studied a lot about Japan in the beginning and slowly branched out to neighboring countries.
Xiaolong: So, your family was not very surprised about your K-pop enthusiasm, then, I suppose?
Nini: I studied things like history, traditions, religions, culture, and traditional music, but never got into pop culture until my late teen years. I hadn’t even thought that Korea had a thriving pop music culture until that day in January 2000. My grandfather and father both passed well before I got into Korean music, but prior to their deaths, they took great delight in feeding my interest in Asian cultures.
My mother is probably the most supportive K-pop mom I’ve ever met. She loves hearing about my work and the music I love, and is even a converted fan to a degree. She really likes Brian (which is a given), but she also enjoys any K-pop I play for her. My brother and sisters, however, think I’m crazy.
CeeFu: Having grown up with Asians and Asian Americans as friends, the stereotypes didn’t match real life. I took four years of Japanese; we were friendly with our neighborhood Korean grocery store owner….Having knowledge about various Asian cultures also helps to undercut the effects of stereotypes. My family’s not surprised by K-pop, they’ve already seen my foray into Chinese and Hong Kong film and Japanese anime…
Xiaolong: My family was absolutely stunned and so were my friends. They all think I went nuts, not because I listen to K-pop, but because of my boy band ventures. They think I should be thinking about marriage not spend my time watching twenty-year-olds dance. 🙂
Nini: My mom, who is sixty-four, has a thing for Jay Park. “He’s very talented.” Direct quote from mom.
Xiaolong: Whoa! That’s one cool mom!
CeeFu: I think everybody is a potential K-pop fan!
…most noona fans I know like the music [male groups] make, first and foremost. […] They really like the personalities. – CeeFu
Xiaolong: Do you know a lot of other noona fans? What do you think makes noonas love these boys?
CeeFu: I know a lot of people want to say that it’s just because they are attractive, but most noona fans I know like the music they make, first and foremost. They like their personalities from watching shows like Hello Baby, or television appearances where they talk about themselves, or behind the scenes shows that show a different side of their personalities, or reading interviews. They really like the personalities.
Nini: I really think that’s dependent on the noona. Many of the older fans that I know cite things like culture, talent, choreography, etc. However, the most frequent answer I get is about lyrics. Many of the newer noona fans have fallen in love with K-pop simply because the lyrics. The English lyrics, and the translated versions of the Korean lyrics, are usually quite clean. Where U.S. music is very riddled with profanity, and violent to some degree, K-pop is more mellow and usually centered around the theme of love–which brings out the sentimental feelings in a noona fan.
CeeFu: I also think the choreography is super important. Noonas remember when our artists used to dance, and they see that all around K-pop. That’s talent, because I can’t do that! :O I agree about the lyrics, too.
Xiaolong: Can there be a psychological reason, too? There are a lot of older male solo artists in K-pop, and female artists, girl groups. Why mainly boy bands, then?
Nini: It’s not really about the psychological, it’s about presence. Male groups outnumber girl groups at least three to one in the K-pop industry. The last statistics I read, some eighty percent (or more) of the worldwide K-pop fan-base are female.
CeeFu: It’s probably more like ninety percent. But guys may be less represented in the data people collect, because girls tend to take more surveys, do more interviews, and are more interested in sharing their views on K-pop.
Nini: This over-saturation of male groups has perpetuated the Hallyu Wave’s reach globally, as there is a wide variety of music styles, concepts, group make-ups and, in truth, an extremely wide variety in male physical and personality types, that can and do appeal to women all over the world.
Xiaolong: But if it’s the music that noonas prefer, we could listen to female artists just as much. But I believe most noona fans are not really into rooting for girl bands or female solos. So, it’s not entirely just the music or the choreography that catches our hearts?
Nini: That, once again, would depend on the noona. I personally listen to more male artists, simply because I’m a female. However, I don’t dislike female groups, and actually follow several female groups religiously: 2ne1, Wonder Girls, and SNSD.
CeeFu: The dynamic with female groups is different, as well as the genres that they tend to participate in. I like some female groups, but there are fewer of them, and fewer concepts among them. I find the male groups more compelling.
Xiaolong: Are they more diverse?
Nini: Male groups are definitely more diverse. Female groups generally fall under three categories: Overly Cute or Overly Fierce–and some flip-flop between two or more of these subsets regularly. It can be an extreme turn off depending on your personal preferences. Most noonas I know prefer girl groups fierce rather than overly cute. Those concepts are more for men. So, they appeal more to Korean men.
CeeFu: Especially right now, there is no room for a female group that just sings well. (Misses Big Mama) The cute groups also appeal to young girls–they’re not just targeted towards men.
Xiaolong: You guys are expert writers at Hellokpop, can you share your real-life stories of meeting male K-idols? I’m particularly interested in whether reality is anything like we see from the images of idols–from a noona perspective.
Nini: I’ve had the pleasure to interact with many K-pop artists, both face-to-face and via e-mail, and I can honestly say that this experience has changed my perspective on artists as well as being a fan.
Xiaolong: How did your perspective change?
Nini: When I first started out in this business, I never thought that my passion for Kpop would evolve into a career that I truly loved. The first artist I had the pleasure of working with was Aziatix. While I was just a general news writer for hellokpop, Aziatix announced their first official tour in the US, and being a fan of both Nicky Lee and Eddie Shin since their original solo debuts, I decided to attend. After discussing the situation with my superiors, I decided to assume the role of a “Concert reporter” for said tour.
The first east coast show I attended was in Boston, Massachusetts, and the opening act for the performance was the Los Angeles-based Electropop group IAMMEDIC. I had been corresponding with IAMMEDIC for some time, both professionally and personally, and had built a friend relationship with all the members. Knowing that I would be attending the show, and before I arrived in Boston, the members of IAMMEDIC invited me to spend time with them before the event.
This interaction materialized into my first all-access to a performance, as the members of IAMMEDIC put me on the guest list for the show. I was allowed into the venue two hours before the show and was introduced to Aziatix one-on-one. We talked as if we were already family. It was also the night I got to meet Aziatix world renowned producer, and one of my personal heroes, Jae Chong, from one of Korea’s most influential R&B/HipHop groups, Solid. After the event, and after the resulting concert coverage was published, I knew that I was on the right path. I knew that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life–and I never looked back.
Aziatix. “We talked, as if we were already family.” – Nini
Xiaolong: Were the artists you met different than you thought them to be?
Nini: While that first experience feels very sentimental to me, I would have to say that the most influential experience I had was when I met and interviewed Jay Park in Washington, DC (2012). Being a fan of 2PM since their debut in 2008 and completely Jay Park biased, this experience was a lesson in control. Normally, when I work with other K-pop artists, I am very calm and collected. However, meeting a personal bias is quite different from meeting a group/artist you simply enjoy. To say that I was inescapably nervous would be an understatement–not because I was intimidated by him, but because I truly respect him through and through, and was deathly afraid of offending him. On the master copy of the video interview, you can actually hear the obvious nervousness that I was feeling.
When you are truly biased towards and artist, you have your own perceptions about that artist. You soak in all the information about his personality, likes/dislikes, and you even, to a degree, study what he’s really about. When I walked into that interview, I truly thought that he was more like his gangsterish/hiphop persona that is so widely accepted in the fan community. I really got the shock of a lifetime when I realized that he is much more respectful, soft spoken, and kindhearted than I originally thought.
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“A K-pop artist is like a book: They’re beautiful, eye catching, and flashy on the outside, but it’s the pages within that are the most interesting. Never judge the book by its cover and never judge a K-pop artist by their idol facade.” That was truly the lesson I learned from that experience, and from that point on I was never again nervous when meeting an artist face-to-face.
Xiaolong: Who are your top biases from male groups and why?
CeeFu: Onew from SHINee (ultimate bias), Minwoo and Eric from Shinhwa, Young Saeng from SS501, Leetuk, Yesung and Donghae from Super Junior. I like them all for different reasons. Onew seems to be a well-rounded guy, really talented, humble, takes care of his members, and dorky (said with love!).
It’s hard to choose between Minwoo and Eric, even though they are really different: Minwoo can be so outgoing, but I love the fact that Eric is a 4D leader. Young Saeng has always been my favorite in SS501: he has a lovely voice and tends not to say too much. I figure since Super Junior has so many members, I can have three biases! Leetuk is a really great host and MC, Yesung has a really great voice and Donghae is, well Donghae! 😀
“Onew seems to be a well-rounded guy” – CeeFu
Nini: For me: My solo artist biases are definitely Brian Joo and Jay Park, as for groups, Aziatix, SS501, Big Bang, and TVXQ/JYJ/DBSK top the list. Brian will always be my ultimate bias, not only because it was he who set me on my path to my K-pop life, but also because he has a genuine and sincere personality that I prefer in people/men. He and I have very similar personality traits.
Jay Park became a bias because of his overall talent, but solidified his place as a bias the day I finally met him in person. Aziatix has a special place in my heart, not only because of their talent and personalities, but because they truly are wonderful people in real life, and I feel sincerely blessed to know them. Big Bang is quite simply a bias, because I love their music. It’s all about the music with Big Bang. SS501 and TVXQ/JYJ/DBSK won my heart at their debuts, and even though I love them for many reasons, it’s their entire being that appeals to me. From personality traits and beliefs to their vocals, music, and pure talent, they will always be tied as my ultimate group biases.
Xiaolong: I have an interesting way of ending up with my biases, actually I usually tend to be caught up in the web by the ‘visual’. So, from Big Bang it was TOP and from JYJ it was Jaejoong at first, but as I start to explore the band through videos, shows, and interviews, I tend to end up with a totally different member. That’s how my ultimate biases came to be G-Dragon and Xia. GD, because during live performances, my attention unknowingly always diverted to him, and because he is extremely talented as a songwriter and I have a soft spot for talents like his.
As for Xia, though, I am torn between his and Jaejoong’s voices sometimes. I believe Junsu’s voice is just the most wonderful thing I ever heard in my lifetime, and he is truly a ‘Happy Virus’. Whenever I see him laugh I forget all my troubles. That’s a very valuable thing! I’m just discovering 2PM, and again, I slowly started to shift from Jun.K to Junho. It seems like I will never end up with the one I originally spot.
Nini: I fell in love with SS501 because of Park Jung Min. I fell in love with DBSK because of Kim Junsu. I totally agree on the ‘Happy Virus’. When Junsu laughs, it’s infectious. From a technical standpoint, I truly feel that Junsu is the best vocalist in K-pop right now. He impresses me at every turn.
Xiaolong: Agreed. Not because he is my bias, but from an objective point of view, too.
CeeFu: I can’t say who’s the best!
XIA Junsu. “…whenever I see him laugh I forget all my troubles” – Xiaolong
Nini: I will say this: during the entire time I’ve been an K-pop fan, my biases have never changed. From solo artist, to groups, to individual members, once they make my bias list they never get replaced. I’m loyal that way.
Xiaolong: For me, I need time to get to know them. That’s how my bias ‘evolves’. It’s not really a bias in the beginning, but rather an interest only. And when I get to know them, my bias ‘comes to me’.
Nini: Of all the K-pop groups out there, who do you think is the most underrated artist?
I know my choice instantly: U-Kiss. They are highly talented, with a small but dedicated fan-base, yet they seem to not garner the attention they truly have earned. It’s a real shame in my opinion.
CeeFu: U-Kiss does catch a lot of flack.
Xiaolong: I guess I am yet too young in K-pop to have the wider perspective, but I guess U-Kiss is one such band, yes.
Because we are noona fans, we also have a responsibility to take care of the younger fans. Sometimes, this means being the voice of reason when fandoms go off the rails with the crazy behavior online. – CeeFu
OK girls, lastly, what would you say to other noonas out there?
CeeFu: Let your noona flag fly! Being a noona fan has its advantages…embrace it!
Nini: I actually have two things to say–first, to the noonas specifically, then a general statement to all the fans.
To all the noonas out there: Be proud that you are a K-pop fan. To love something, despite the stigma that is placed on us, is the measure of true strength and dedication. Never feel ashamed of who you are and what you love.
To all the fans: K-pop fans show a dedication and loyalty to a genre that is firmly making its presence known to the world’s music industry. While mainstreaming of K-pop has yet to be accomplished, I believe that if we continue to stand united in support of the music we hold so dear, one day we will see all of our hard work and dedication come to fruition. Be strong, stay positive, and Always Keep the Faith. AKTF may be a mantra of DBSK fans, but I feel its a perfect mantra for K-pop as a whole.
CeeFu: There is one more thing I would say about noona fans: Because we are noona fans, we also have a responsibility to take care of the younger fans. Sometimes, this means being the voice of reason when fandoms go off the rails with the crazy behavior online. Sometimes this means sticking up for fans when they are misrepresented or unfairly attacked, especially our tween fans. Sometimes, it means helping to reign in the aggression, snarkiness and nastiness that some try to pass off as commentary about K-pop. That’s not who most of us are as fans.
Nini: I absolutely agree. Not only is taking care of your youngers a huge part of the Korean culture, but its also a huge part of K-pop fan culture. We fans are one big family, no matter where our bias lists fall, and it’s up to all of us to keep the fandom on track.
Xiaolong: You see, I’m still a little insecure, being a ‘new’ noona fan. So, I thank you, Unnies, for encouraging all of us to embrace this experience and for sharing your thoughts with us!
Dear readers, what do YOU think about us noona fans? Is it OK? Is it embarrassing? Share your opinions!
Note: *Noona: Technically it means ‘older sister of a man’. In K-pop ‘noona fans’ refer to women in their late 20’s or older, who are fans of younger male artists.
Nini: Specialty writer & Head of Public Relations (USA).
Ceefu: Assistant Chief Editor.
Xiaolong: Editorial writer.